Wednesday, 24 October 2018

'First Man'​ - one man's journey into his own personal space



I went to our wonderful local fleapit The Phoenix at the weekend with the scientist in the family, our son, to view 'First Man' directed by Damien Chazelle who gave us 'Whiplash' and 'La La land.'

This is a far more ambitious movie in that it attempts to recreate the late 1960s - a challenging period of American history in which the US struggled with its foreign policy over Vietnam while also desperately trying to win the war with Russia over conquering space.

Against this backdrop, which Chazelle portrays with much authenticity, this film focuses not on the extraordinary human achievement and the triumph of a nation, so much as the rather solitary and moving journey of the narrative's chief achitect, Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong, by all accounts, was a fairly solitary and modest figure who, following his colossal achievement, shrugged off all publicity for a quiet life of academia. His own family described him as 'a reluctant hero.' And it's this side of the moon landing story that Chazelle chooses to show us. Unlike the brazen Buzz Aldrin (how could you not be brazen with a name like that?), Armstrong was a quiet, contemplative man who found it difficult to share his emotions - particularly following the tragic death of his young daughter from a brain tumour. He was the quiet kind of hero that we all like to gun for. But for him, going to the moon wasn't just a way for mankind to gain knowledge, it was a deeply personal and profound journey he felt compelled to make in order to make sense of his life.

Ryan Gosling plays a very credible and restrained Neil Armstrong while Claire Foy produces a very good performance as his wife who is desperately trying to hold the family together and smiling for the cameras, while her husband risks life and limb in the name of science.

This is an intelligent, well crafted film that attempts to throw light on America's 'reluctant hero.' And to a large degree, it succeeds in pulling it off.

Alex Pearl is a freelance writer and author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds




Thursday, 1 March 2018

Chasing the Northern Lights with Tim Peake, Pete Lawrence, Jon Culshaw, Brian Cox, Donald Trump and the late Patrick Moore

The last time I attempted to have a close encounter with the Northern Lights was back in 1990 when my brother and I decided to take a holiday together aboard a Norwegian cargo boat (the cargo being several tons of sardines). Setting sail from Bergen in our thermal underwear (it was March and pretty cold, after all), we were looking forward to the distinct possibility of viewing the Aurora from the ship's deck. What we hadn't quite realised was the fact that majestic fjords are not necessarily plain sailing - particularly at this time of year. This became patently clear on our first day at lunch when on taking our seats in the dining room, we couldn't help noticing that the tables and chairs had been ominously chained to the floor. The rubber place mats on which cutlery and glasses seemed to stick rigidly, were another pretty obvious clue. As our trip along the Norwegian coastline progressed, the motion of the boat slowly but surely began to imitate that of another vessel I had once boarded: the Pirate Ship at Alton Towers. One could just about handle the up and down motion, but once the side to side motion kicked in at the same time, I'm afraid most passengers headed swiftly (or at least as swiftly as one can go with all that movement going on) to the bathrooms located appropriately enough in the bowels of the ship. So when inevitably, the Northern Lights finally appeared to dance frenetically across the night sky, my brother and I had other more pressing engagements to attend to below deck.

It took another 30 years before I'd attempt to catch this elusive natural phenomenon for a second time. And on this occasion it was my wife who had noticed the ad for a trip aboard an Airbus to view the Aurora in the company of none other than Tim Peake, Pete Lawrence The Sky At Night presenter and Jon Culshaw the impressionist and keen astronomer. This special event was being organised as a fundraiser by Aerobility, a charity dedicated to giving those with terminal illnesses and disabilities of any kind, the opportunity to experience the liberating and exhilarating feeling of flying for themselves. It's a charity we know all too well, as Jennifer my wife is a wheelchair user and has taken to the skies several times with Aerobility. We applied there and then for seats for ourselves and our son. (Our daughter would have joined us but was flying to India that same day.) And within days our places had been confirmed, and the trip sold out. We were lucky.

On the day, we set off from home in NW London and arrived at Gatwick's plush Sofitel Hotel in time for a coffee and tea reception followed by introductions in the dining room. Mike Miller-Smith the CEO of Aerobility who is himself a wheelchair user, gave an emotional address about Aerobility's incredible work and played us a short film. We were then treated to a full explanation of the science behind the Aurora by Pete Lawrence, one of the TV presenters associated with The Sky at Night. Lawrence is not only a brilliantly informative speaker, but also witty. Getting your audience to laugh as well as learn is a gift; one Mr Lawrence possesses in spades. Having thoroughly whetted our appetite for this natural spectacle, we were then treated to another visual feast of impressive proportions: lunch. First course was a stunning representation of our solar system laid out in the form of miniature cheeses, an egg yolk and a selection of miniature pickled vegetables. I'm afraid to say I polished off the entire solar system with relish. It was quite delicious; as was the main course: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding alongside an assortment of artistically arranged vegetables. Following petit fours, we were given a swift telescope demonstration and camera workshop by Neil Parker, the former Deputy Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Having digested these useful tips, the main treat of the day was served up with aplomb by Squadron Leader Mike Ling. Being a Red Arrow squadron leader, Ling explained, was something most people found pretty awe-inspiring. But on this occaion he was about to be trumped big time by this afternoon's very special guest. Mr Tim Peake took to the podium like a duck to water. He is a natural speaker and his enthusiasm for his subject is pretty contagious. The atmosphere in that room for the next hour was virtually palpable. His account of his six months on the International Space Station was insightful and totally absorbing. He explained that what little spare time he had to himself, he spent taking photographs of earth from a viewing platform that constantly faced towards our planet. And then he proceeded to show us these remarkable high definition images, which were breathtakingly beautiful. The following 20 minutes was opened up to the floor as Mr Jon Culshaw took a microphone around the room and introduced questions from the floor in the voice of David Dimbleby. Everyone seemed to have questions, but thankfully the children were given priority. One child asked what the food was like on the ISS. Another asked him how he overcame his fears. And another wanted to know what scared him the most. To all these questions, Peake gave thoughtful and detailed answers. The food was rehydratable and could be heated up. And no, it wasn't particularly brilliant. But you just had to get used to it. As for his fears, he acknowledged that this was a very good question. His way of coping with his, was to focus wholeheartedly on his training. It was the only way he could really overcome them. His most scary experience was without any doubt his space walk outside the space station when no more than a single cable separated him from the security of the station and the all-embracing black infinity of outer space. Someone else beat me to a question I was itching to to ask; how long it would take in his view for a manned mission to Mars. He was fairly convinced that such a trip would realistically take place by 2030, but then added that it was also very feasible that the momentum now being created by Elon Musk and Spacex would bring that launch date forward.

The questions could have easily carried on for the entire afternoon, but we were under a tight schedule and it was now time to grab our boarding passes and passports and take the monorail to the exit gate for departure. I can honestly say that this is the first time I have ever heard the following announcement while boarding a plane: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your British Airways flight to nowhere."

There were 140 passengers in total - around 20 or so of whom were wheelchair users and needed to be transferred onto a special narrow wheelchair to wheel down the aisle of the Airbus to then be carefully lifted and seated in their seat. This tricky operation was carried out with military precision and grace, and before we knew it, all 140 passengers were comfortably seated and being plied with refreshments. The cabin crew, by the way, were all volunteering their services free to the charity.

Once we were in the air, all the cabin lights were turned off and all the illuminated seat belt signs were blacked out with black tape. It took around 15 minutes for your eyes to acclimatise to the dark. But of course, by doing so, you could enjoy a remarkable view of the stars. The only light was being given out by the moon, which was apparently particularly bright that night. And as we cruised at 30,000 feet above the clouds, we were treated to a commentary by Pete Lawrence who pointed out the stars and their constellations on both sides of the aircraft.

As we approached the coast of the Shetland Isles, the mysterious and very clear Aurora suddenly appeared above the horizon line as a very distinct band of light. According to Pete Lawrence who has wintnessed the phenomenon no fewer than 240 times, this wasn't a spectacular display, but it was certainly very visible. The chance of seeing the Northern Lights from an aircraft are 50:50, so we certainly felt very priviledged to have done so.

So what exactly are the northern lights or aurora? The scientific definition is fairly technical and complex, so without wanting to speak another language, we can define these dancing and swirling lights as countless collisions of electrically charged particles spewed out by the sun into the earth's atmosphere. The lights can be best viewed above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as the Aurora borealis in the north and Aurora australis in the south.

As the aircraft turned for home, we were served our second meal of the day, courtesy of British Airways. This was followed by after dinner speeches by Mr Donald Trump, Professor Brian Cox, Carl Sagan and Patrick Moore - in the form of the exceptionally talented Mr Jon Culshaw whose extraordinary ability to replicate the precise tone and inflexion of his subjects is breathtaking. It was, I have to say, the perfect ending to a long but very memorable day.

Our thanks go to Aerobility and British Airways for making such a remarkable trip possible, and, of course the fabulous cabin crew and our wonderful speakers. Finally our special thanks must go to Mr Tim Peake whose contribution and presence made this particular trip so very special for everyone.

Alex Pearl is a freelance writer and author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds  Alex Pearl Ltd

Further newspaper links covering this event:
The Sun
The Daily Express
The Daily Mail


Monday, 29 May 2017

How wheelchair users can find their wings.

Spinal Track

My wife has always dreamed of driving a sports car. Before the spinal tumour struck five years ago, it was something she would occasionally hanker after. But with the arrival of children, that romantic notion of swanning around in some little shiny red convertible was soon brushed aside and superseded not by the need for speed but the need for child seats, and copious space for countless shopping bags and child related paraphernalia. So the dream of the sports coupe gave way to the reality of the ubiquitous and exceptionally dreary family hatchback.

It's perverse in many ways that it's only now as she finds herself in a wheelchair, that she has been able to do rather more than just dream about driving a fast sports car again; she's actually been able to live that dream for an afternoon at the home of British motor racing - Silverstone. And the reason for this extraordinary turn up for the books boils down to a remarkable organisation called Spinal Track. Spinal Track is the brainchild of Nathalie McGloin and Andrew Bayliss.

Nathalie McGloin is in fact the world's only female racing driver with a spinal injury that has left her paralysed from the chest down. She originally sustained the injury in a car accident (as a passenger) when she was just 16. Following eleven months in rehab, she returned to school to sit her A levels and then went on to university in Nottingham to study English. Her strength of character and determination to lead an independent life soon got her into playing wheelchair rugby. The sport proved incredibly beneficial as it helped her build her strength, adopt a positive mindset and conquer her condition. Soon she was training for the GB wheelchair rugby trials and playing at a serious level. But on failing to make the GB team for 2012, her passion for the sport faded, only to be replaced by a passion for motor racing.

She has always fostered a love of sports cars and had managed to drive them despite the fact that they are completely impractical for wheelchair users. But it was only after being introduced to track events by a friend that she finally succumbed to the sport, and made it her next mission in life to obtain her Association of Racing Drivers Schools (ARDS) racing licence. In October 2013, having taken part in several sprint events, undergone a medical and demonstrated her ability to get out of a car in seven seconds, she achieved just that. Now with her licence, she takes part in the Porsche Club Championship where she races able-bodied men in her specially adapted hand-controlled Cayman S.

As for the feeling of getting behind the wheel, Nathalie sums it up beautifully: "When you're on track with able-bodied drivers, you're no longer a wheelchair user - you're another competitor. It's the freedom you strive for after a spinal cord injury. You want to be viewed as a person, not a disabled person."

And it's this sense of freedom she wants others like her with spinal injuries, to get a taste of. So with her partner Andrew Bayliss, they set up Spinal Track - an organisation dedicated to giving wheelchair users the opportunity to drive a specially adapted racing car on the famous Silverstone circuit.

My wife first learnt about Spinal Track from the Spinal Injuries Association for whom Nathalie is an ambassador, and having applied to take part, received a call from Nathalie herself. Currently, Spinal Track only have the one adapted racing car, so can only take on two people per day - one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

As someone with no knowledge of motor racing, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. On arrival, I was gobsmacked by the sheer scale of the site. Having pulled in to a large car park in front of huge complex of steel and glass, I made my way to a large reception area and was informed that we required 'The Wing' from where we would be directed to the Spinal Track space located in the F1 pit stops. To reach said point we would need to go back on the dual carriageway and take the first left turn and continue for a further mile or so. To drive at Silverstone, you don't have to drive a racing car; the network of normal tarmac roads around the site are incredibly extensive. So now I can feel fully justified in claiming to have driven our Citroen Belingo round Silverstone.

The place feels a little bit like an airport - an exceptionally large airport. Interestingly enough, it was actually originally built on a World War II RAF  bomber station in 1943.

Eventually, I arrived at an even larger complex than the first one with signage that proclaimed it to be The Wing's North Entrance. I pulled in to the massive car park and stepped into a vast auditorium that was clearly being prepared for a corporate lunch. I asked a young lad laying wine glasses on a sea of dining tables if I was in the right area and discovered that I had to continue driving to the other side of the building where I'd see the pit garages clearly numbered. I wanted number 16. The Wing actually houses a host of conference and entertaining facilities with spectacular viewing balconies of the track.

We were greeted by Andrew and shown up to the large cafe on the second floor. Here we were introduced to the other wheelchair user who Andrew referred to as the 'morning man' who'd just finished his session on the track, which he had clearly enjoyed. Nathalie joined us shortly afterwards. Andrew explained that after lunch Jennifer my wife would receive a short briefing about the track rules before being let lose on the track. Being  totally ignorant about motor racing I asked Andrew how one goes about driving at Silverstone and was surprised to learn that anyone can turn up and have a go on a track day once they've paid  their fee of around £400 to do so. "So can you bring an ice-cream van here and drive that round the track?" I asked mischievously. Andrew smiled broadly. Apparently, your vehicle has to meet certain basic requirements. And I was left with the distinct impression that an ice-cream van wouldn't make the grade.

Lunch over, it was time for my wife's briefing. A large, burly chap with a jovial air about him led us into a side room and outlined the driving rules. You could only overtake in the left lane and were obliged to move over into the right lane if someone behind was looking to overtake you. You were only allowed to overtake on the straights and not the bends. And the appearance of certain flags denoted hazards or incidents of varying importance; the red flag being the most significant.

Minutes later my wife was pulling on a special kind of balaclava followed by a serious looking crash helmet with a built in microphone. Andrew was going to drive first to show her the ropes. Then it would be her turn. There are, I might add, no dual controls.

Following two laps, Andrew pulled into the pits, and Jennifer transferred into her wheelchair (quite how Nathalie manages this in seven seconds, is mystifying).

"How fast did Andrew go?" I asked Jennifer. "140 on the straight," she said smiling, and made her way over to the driver's seat. Now it was her turn.

Spinal Track is still in its infancy, but already its work is having a wonderfully liberating effect on those wheelchair users fortunate enough to get behind the wheel of its specially adapted VW GTI. This is the only organisation in the UK that can provide such an opportunity, and it does so completely free of charge. (A £200 deposit is returned after the event.) Andrew explained later that several ex-servicemen have had the chance to drive here at Silverstone with Spinal Track. If the smile on their faces was anything like that of Jennifer's when she finally pulled into the pit stops after four laps, the efforts of Nathalie and Andrew will have been well and truly worth it.

Spinal Track is now seeking charitable status. If you'd like to learn more, simply contact Spinal Track here.

Sportability


I first encountered the affable David Heard when looking for the entrance to Finmere aerodrome in Buckinghamshire. I was driving my wife to this airstrip not to fly a plane but to sail a blokart. A blokart, I should explain, is essentially a go-kart with a sail.

David, sporting a bright red baseball cap, stood at the side of the road directing the day's participants through a large metal farm gate. The aerodrome lay beyond the farm buildings owned by Noble Foods.

David is the Chief Executive of Sportability, a charity he originally set up 28 years ago, following a car accident involving a very good friend. In fact, it was the transformative effect of sport on David's friend that was to sow the seeds of Sportability.

Today Sportability provides a host of sports and pursuits for people with paralysis; very often those with a spinal injury or other debilitating conditions like MS or the after effects of a stroke.

David has the perfect background to understand the psychological importance of such activities when it comes to building confidence; he holds a Masters in Physiology and Physical Therapy, and his area of interest at university revolved around the role of exercise in promoting wellbeing among people with spinal injuries.

Aside from blokarting, Sportability arranges archery, sailing canoeing, falconry, fishing, gliding, motorsports, quadbiking, scuba diving, shooting, skydiving, water skiing and tennis. And all these events, which are held across the country are suitable for complete novices as well as those who are dab-hands. They are also all completely free of charge - so as the Sportability website so aptly puts it, 'you have nothing to lose but your inhibitions.' In 2016 alone, Sportability organised 71 events across 13 regions. The ultimate aim of the charity is to bring these events within one hour's drive of the main areas of population of the UK. "Our ambition," says David, "is to build our presence in South Wales, the North East, and Northern Ireland."

While sipping my coffee, I watched Jennifer set off down the runway in her blokart. It's a skillful business, and was clearly something the sailors among the day's recruits had a real knack for. After all, catching the wind in your sail is no different, whether you're on water or dry land. I got chatting to a lady who was a very keen blokart competitor and had taken part in events in California where the sport is pretty big. I asked her how fast you could go in one of these things. She said that with the right conditions you could do 60mph, which she had achieved on a beach in California. From the look on Jennifer's face, I get the distinct impression that we'll be back.

For further details about Sportabilty, simply contact the charity here.

Aerobility

I had never been in an aeroplane as small as a six seater before. But now, all that was about to change. Jennifer had booked a flying session with the charity Aerobility. We'd learnt about the organisation while visiting an exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham, and now as we parked at Blackbushe airfield in Hampshire, my heart began to race ever so slightly. I'm a nervous flyer at the best of times but going up in one of these tiddlers didn't exactly fill me with joy. Our 18-year-old son who loves nothing more than riding roller coasters was up for it, as was my wife.

Aerobility was established in 1993 and regularly operates from three airfields in the UK: Blackbushe, Tatenhill in the Midlands and Prestwick in Scotland. Its sole purpose in life is to allow anyone with a disability to try their hand at flying for a fraction of the usual cost.

We checked into reception and were eventually introduced to our pilot - a very young, fresh faced lad who looked no older than our son. We were lead to the hangar and were shown to the blue and white Cherokee we were to board. Jennifer was winched into the cockpit by a sophisticated, hydraulic hoist, and Jonathan and I were invited to clamber onto the wing and into the rear of the cockpit. Once we were all firmly planted in our seats and strapped in, the pilot started the engine and the whole plane began to reverberate, which became more pronounced as it began taxying down the runway. At this point in the proceedings, I nervously pointed out to the pilot that his door was still open. This apparently was not a problem, and Jennifer told me not to panic, so I bit my lip. As the plane built up speed, the pilot nonchalantly shut his door and seconds later we were thrown into the air and began to climb. In no time at all, we were looking down on a patchwork of fields. Jennifer and Jonathan were in their element. I, on the other hand, was well out of my comfort zone and found it difficult to get too excited as this ridiculously flimsy piece of engineering bumped around in the clouds. I was feeling decidedly queasy, which wasn't helped when Jennifer was invited by the pilot to take over the controls. But in fairness to Jennifer, the experience was no bumpier under her control.

The views were undeniably spectacular, but I have to say that I was hugely relieved when we finally came down and landed very smoothly on firm ground.

Needless to say, Jennifer enjoyed every second, and can't wait to have another go.

For more details about Aerobility, simply contact the charity at info@aerobility.com

Alex Pearl is a freelance writer and author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The art of building a brand in financial services

My wife and I spent a very pleasant couple of hours the other day at the Royal Academy's excellent After the Fall exhibition of 1930s American art. This was followed by a spot of lunch at Cafe Concerto and excellent coffee, biscuits and fresh fruit over at Sir Richard Branson's gaffe on Haymarket. The gaffe in question being the Virgin Money Lounge where customers can check in, take the weight off their weary feet, and help themselves to refreshments and newspapers - all free of charge.

Few people know more about the art of building brands than Sir Richard. Despite coming late to the financial services sector, Virgin Money has in a relatively short space of time, run rings round its competitors. In the area of investments, Branson saw the gap in the market for a simple investment for the novice investor by launching its tracker fund (managed by computers rather than costly fund managers) as a retail investment as early as 1995 - well before anyone else. Not only was he able to grasp the power of its simplicity and appeal to the masses, but also succeeded in implementing a management charge of 1% - a fee 12 times that of Legal & General's identical product. Despite this remarkable discrepancy, the fund has been so well pitched in marketing terms and supported by the company's legendary customer services that it has been hugely successful at tapping into the massive market of investment newbies. In one fell swoop Branson had managed to do what conventional investment houses had grappled unsuccessfully with for decades. Indeed, in the wake of Virgin's success, even the mighty Hargreaves Lansdown has in recent years included tracker funds on its roster, having pooh poohed them for years. Though ironically, Virgin's fund isn't among them as its management fee is far too high.

Then in 1997, Virgin saw the potential of shaking up the mortgage market by creating with RBS its One Account with which customers were given the freedom to consolidate the balances of their mortgages, current accounts, savings accounts and loans into one account. By offsetting the net total of all these accounts against the capital sum borrowed for the mortgage, customers were able to reduce the interest payments on their mortgages. It was a brilliantly simple idea. But nobody else had thought of it until then. Needless to say, the product was an instant success and helped this relatively new kid on the block further bolster its position in this otherwise conservative and staid market.

It has to be said that Sir Richard isn't just good at spotting opportunities to win over clients. He's also brilliant at retaining them through customer services, and understands its inseparable link with brand building, better than most. In fact, customer services has been something of an obsession throughout his career. There is, of course, the famous story about him disguising his own voice and calling one of his companies as a disgruntled customer, and demanding to be put in touch with Richard Branson. No one tells the story better than the man himself: "I am so pathetically bad at imitating someone else's voice that Penni, my trusted assistant for many years, sat there and let me make a complete fool of myself with some trumped-up complaint before saying, 'Well, thank you so much for sharing all that with me, sir. Let me see if Mr. Branson is available to take your call.' She then kept me hanging on for what seemed like an eternity - it was probably a couple of minutes - before coming back on the line to say, 'Sorry, Richard, but you appear to be out of the office at the moment, can someone else help you?' before dissolving into howls of laughter."

It's a funny story, but it makes an important point that most entrepreneurs fail to grasp. Namely that you should never get so caught up in management and strategy that you forget that you're providing a product or service for the benefit of customers.

Virgin Money has from the outset tried harder than most of its competitors to score brownie points in this department, and has by and large succeeded pretty well. In 2011, it took the decision once again to do something no other financial services provider had so much as contemplated. It launched its Virgin Money Lounges - essentially VIP lounges on the high street for its customers. Besides free refreshments and newspapers, Virgin Money lounges also provide iPads and in some cases, a bookable room for meetings. According to the young lad who greeted us at the Haymarket lounge, they get around 200 customers using it every day. The one in Glasgow gets as many as 1,000 through its doors on some days. That's an awful lot of customers in a year. Yes, they may be paying too high a price for their tracker funds. But they are happy customers, and they wouldn't dream of going anywhere else. That's the genius and staying power of the Branson brand.

Alex Pearl is the owner of Alex Pearl Ltd and author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds

Saturday, 24 September 2016

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Sunday, 7 August 2016

Laughter - it's a serious business


I have long held the view that clients who possess a sense of humour and are keen to run amusing advertising campaigns are those most likely to succeed in this world. It' a simple philosophy, but as a general rule, I think the principle stands up fairly well. You only have to look at some of the best loved and effective advertising campaigns to acknowledge this.

Iconic poster for the beer that refreshes those other parts.
Volkswagen and Heineken are two particularly good examples. Back in 1978, the copywriter Terry Lovelock was tasked by his agency, Collett Dickenson Pearce to create a campaign for the Dutch brewer, Heineken. His brief revolved around one word: refreshment. For weeks Lovelock and his Art Director tried to come up with something they liked, but weren't getting very far. Eventually, at the eleventh hour and as an act of sheer desperation, Lovelock decided to seek inspiration in Marrakesh. Luckily for him, the change of scene; the sunshine; the spicy cuisine (or possibly a few hallucinatory substances) did the trick, and on waking up in his hotel room at 3am, he wrote those immortal words: 'Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.'  Frank Lowe the agency's chairman liked it and presented the idea in the form of two TV scripts to Anthony Simmonds-Gooding, the most senior client at Whitbread, while the pair flew to Leningrad (now St Petersberg) to view an exhibition at the Hermitage.  Simmonds-Gooding bought the concept at 20,000 feet and the campaign ran for 22 years, cementing Heineken's position in the market and creating one of advertising history's best loved campaigns.

Twenty years before Terry Lovelock wracked his brains in Marrakesh, Bill Bernbach's New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach found itself with a tricky brief to sell a strange looking car that had been designed by the Nazis in Germany. Bernbach defied all advertising conventions at that time by deciding to adopt self-deprecating humour to convey the car's chief characteristics: its size and less than perfect looks, while extolling its winning virtues: reliability and thrift. With consummate wit, one of its early commercials featured a funeral cortege and the the voice of the deceased reading his last will and testament. 90% of the script is devoted to the old man berating in the most amusing terms his nearest and dearest for their extravagant lifestyles, while we see them coast past in a long cortege of large saloons. Finally, we get to see the old man's nephew driving a VW Beetle, and the old man wearily signs off: "And to my nephew Harold who oft-times said, "a penny saved is a penny earned," and who also oft-times said, "Gee, Uncle Max, it sure pays to own a Volkswagen", I leave my entire fortune of one hundred million dollars." The commercial makes you chuckle and is absolutely timeless.



Press ad for the VW Beetle.
Of course, it's no coincidence that these two hugely successful brands have relied on wit to sell. It is without any doubt one of the most potent tools that the marketing industry has at its disposal. Yet, it never ceases to amaze me that so many clients shun anything remotely amusing, firmly believing that humour denigrates a brand; and somehow makes it frivolous. The consensus seems to be that if you want to be taken seriously, you have to be seen to behave seriously. And the result is that most advertising is simply dull and instantly forgettable.

In a rather round-about kind of way, this brings me to the subject I wanted to talk about in the first place: a project of one of my own clients. Sofia Fenichell is an impressive businesswoman. She started out, funnily enough, as an executive at Doyle Dayne Bernbach, and then moved into the higher echelons of investment banking and hedge fund management, before starting her own businesses. Her latest venture, which I have had the pleasure of helping her with is a fascinating project that blends science with, you've guessed it, humour. In short, she and her business partners, have come up with Mrs Wordsmith - an ingenious way to improve the vocabulary of primary school children. Mrs Wordsmith comes in the form of a beautifully produced monthly package that is delivered directly to your door. Inside are a series of placemats that have been lovingly designed with amusing narratives and inventive word games. And all the words and stories have been illustrated by the brilliant team of artists behind the DreamWorks movies Madagascar and Hotel Transylvania. As one of the lead writers on the project, I've really enjoyed the collaborative process of working with the DreamWorks team. Sofia and her business partners, who include the neuroscientist Dr Lesley Sand, understand the importance of humour when communicating to young kids. And it's why they approached DreamWorks in the first place. Sofia was very clear about this. "If the illustrations weren't going to be funny, the whole thing wasn't going to work," she told me when I had my first meeting with her. But she needn't worry on this score, as the illustrations are, as you'd expect, wonderfully irreverent and humorous.

One of countless illustrations by DreamWorks for Mrs Wordsmith.
The entire concept has in fact been based on masses of research into how young children learn a wider and richer vocabulary. And how a wide vocabulary at a young age will help children to confidently master all subjects at school including maths. Research has also shown that certain rich words that aren't on the primary school curriculum are usually learnt at home; particularly if families sit around the dinner table and engage in conversation. So Mrs Wordsmith employs placemats to be used at mealtimes in ten minute bursts every day. Repeating words in different contexts through the use of amusing illustrations and stories is, according to Dr Sand, the key to success. Instilling a love and understanding of words early on also develops a love for reading.

Surprisingly, there is no other paper based programme quite like it on the market. Kumon is the only other system out there. It's been around for years, but is very dry, humourless, and is based solely on learning by rote.

To date, the educational establishment have been raving about Mrs Wordsmith. It does precisely what every school wants every parent to do at home with their kids - but with minimum effort.

By being irreverent, amusing and mischievous, Mrs Wordsmith is certainly going to appeal to kids. And it'll only be a matter of time before it makes its mark. Indeed, in ten years from now, I suspect it will become a household name. Embrace humour wisely, and sooner or later you'll be laughing all the way to the bank.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds






Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The magician with chutzpah


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Chutzpah, if you didn't already realize, is a Yiddish word that has found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary. The writer Leo Rosten defines it as a word meaning the ultimate in gall, brazen nerve and effrontery. And by way of definition, claims that it is the quality enshrined in a man who, having murdered his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. As it happens, there is someone I have encountered who can claim to possess this trait in spades. Allow me to elaborate.

Many years ago when our kids were considerably shorter than us, we were faced with organising a 12th birthday party for our son. In the past we'd had the usual parties in the garden or in school halls and the like, but this particular year we'd thought we'd arrange a a cricket match for the boys as our son at that time was particularly keen on the game. The weather, however, conspired against us on the day and the cricket was going to be a non-starter. In retrospect, there can be fewer more regrettable situations to find oneself in than having 16 boisterous and highly excitable twelve-year-old male birthday guests on your hands with no birthday activities or venue for them to do them in.

My wife, ever resourceful, had a brainwave. "I know. I'll call Lee. Her son Julius is a member of the Magic Circle. We'll get him to do some magic tricks in the house; I'll sort out tea; and you can organize a quiz." Two hours later, 15-year-old Julius shows up with his box of tricks and sets up, while I attempt without much luck to interest our excitable guests in my history quiz. Tea consisting of sandwiches, endless packets of crisps, lots of fizzy drinks and, of course, the obligatory birthday cake, comes as a saving grace. I'm frankly exhausted by it all. But the energy levels of the assembled throng, having fed on copious quantities of fizzy drinks is now at an all-time high and one boy in particular by the name of Daniel takes a great deal of delight in winding up everyone around him.

By the time we let them onto our magician, things are at fever pitch. But thankfully, Julius has a certain way of handling his audience.

"Ok guys. Would you mind shutting up now please. I'm going to show you some pretty cool stuff. But if you don't shut up right now I'm not going to show you anything, Ok?" And with this, the crowd calms down and Julius launches into a pretty impressive magic trick involving a pencil and a deck of cards. The boys seem captivated. The tricks continue. Coins magically disappear and reappear in strange places; a £5 note is torn in half and is then restored to its former glory; interlinked metal rings are magically pulled apart. Everything seems to be going swimmingly, until, that is, Daniel can no longer contain himself. "That's rubbish. That's not magic," he declares raucously, and for a moment the spell over the boys is broken and there are giggles and guffaws. But before things get out of hand, Julius takes control of the situation. He quite literally leaps into his audience and gets Daniel in a stranglehold and then pins him up against our wall and twists his arm behind his back. "Ok. If I hear another peep out of you I'll break your arm. Do you hear?" Daniel goes white and doesn't say a word. Julius returns to his magic table and the show continues without a hitch.

His approach, though unconventional, is very effective. But I can't help feeling responsible for Daniel and become very concerned that his parents might want to sue us for any physical and emotional harm to their son. So once all the kids have finally dispersed with their party bags and the detritus created by 16 small people is shovelled into several black bin liners, I get onto the phone to Daniel's mother. I spend what feels like several minutes apologising for the unfortunate incident involving strangleholds and bent arms and express my hope that Daniel wasn't traumatised. "Oh don't worry about that Mr Pearl. We're used to it. It's always happening to Daniel. Thank you for the party." I put the phone down with a certain relief.

I have since learnt that Julius went on to perfect his magic while doing his A levels. On one occasion at school, he apparently tore up his homework in front of his teacher and then made it magically reappear in one piece on the teacher's desk.

Now, while at university his magic has reached new heights. Julius Dein has performed for Google, Nelson Mandela, Arsenal FC, and several prestigious events attended by the likes of Russel Brand, Simon Cowell, Alan Sugar and Stephen Hawking, to name just a few.

His mother is desperately worried that he won't achieve his degree in politics with all his extra curricular activities. But if I were her, I wouldn't worry. This young man will obviously stop at nothing to hold the undivided attention of his audience, and seems destined for great things. And though he no longer resorts to strangleholds, the chutzpah is certainly in evidence. You can take a look at some of his antics here.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds